Today, I’m going to write about a slur. It’s a distortion that’s been around for a while, but has spread like a weed over the past few months. It was concocted for partisan reasons: to flatter the prejudices of one side, to demonize the other and to simplify a complicated reality into a political nursery tale.
The distortion concerns a speech Ronald Reagan gave during the 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., which is where three civil rights workers had been murdered 16 years earlier. An increasing number of left-wing commentators assert that Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign with a states’ rights speech in Philadelphia to send a signal to white racists that he was on their side. The speech is taken as proof that the Republican majority was built on racism.
The truth is more complicated.
In reality, Reagan strategists decided to spend the week following the 1980 Republican convention courting African-American votes. Reagan delivered a major address at the Urban League, visited Vernon Jordan in the hospital where he was recovering from gunshot wounds, toured the South Bronx and traveled to Chicago to meet with the editorial boards of Ebony and Jet magazines.
Lou Cannon of The Washington Post reported at the time that this schedule reflected a shift in Republican strategy. Some inside the campaign wanted to move away from the Southern strategy used by Nixon, believing there were more votes available in the northern suburbs and among working-class urban voters.
But there was another event going on that week, the Neshoba County Fair, seven miles southwest of Philadelphia. The Neshoba County Fair was a major political rallying spot in Mississippi (Michael Dukakis would campaign there in 1988). Mississippi was a state that Republican strategists hoped to pick up. They’d recently done well in the upper South, but they still lagged in the Deep South, where racial tensions had been strongest. Jimmy Carter had carried Mississippi in 1976 by 14,000 votes.
So the decision was made to go to Neshoba. ...